Punditry With Prudence

“According to you,” a reader wrote me privately about a recent column that appeared in this space, “we can’t make any conclusions, because of the unknowns.”

The column, titled “Unknown Unknowns,” pointed out how, particularly in political affairs (like the current American administration’s relationship with Israel) we don’t always have the whole picture. I noted as an example, how, at the very same time that many Jewish media were attacking President Obama for his ostensible hostility toward Israel, the president was determinedly working hand in glove with Israel in a secret cyber-project to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. As pundits huffed and puffed, Stuxnet was silently destroying centrifuges.

The reader was chagrined that I, as he read it, was counseling a moratorium on commentary about all political affairs. I wrote back to explain that no, I didn’t mean that at all. We can, and even should, express our concerns openly in the free country in which we’re privileged to live. But we must do so with reason and civility (maybe even fairness), not the sort of ranting that passes for dialectic on talk radio these days. I meant only (and perhaps should have written more clearly) that a degree … Read More >>


Only One Path to One Jewish People

In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel. He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state. Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood. The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.” And yes, that didn’t happen. (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.) But … Read More >>

Strong and Subtle Slanders

The New York Jewish Week was understandably unhappy at the comparison that a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi seemed to make between the paper and the rabid Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which, from1923 until 1945, incited Germans with lurid fictions about Jews.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ, recently stepped down from the Beit Din of Bergen County he led for seven years, mainly, he wrote, because of “the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many…towards the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, was also critical of a decision made by that latter organization to appoint a new conversion committee that will include several non-rabbinical members in addition to five rabbis. He expressed concern that the new committee may “water down the standards” for conversion and potentially lead to a return to “the old days of quickie conversions with little commitment.”

When the Jewish Week contacted him to elaborate, he declined to speak to its reporter, asserting that the paper is “one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and … Read More >>

Do We Care About a Jewish Israel?

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner

Opponents of traditional Torah values are trying to change the face of Judaism in Israel, and have laid out their plans in full detail. Are we listening? Are we going to respond? Are we going to protect the Mesorah and Kedusha of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael?

Discussions in Israel today – in the media, in the halls of Knesset, and at the highest levels of government – threaten the religious status quo in Israel as never before. If passed into law, bills currently being forwarded will expand the divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in Israel and worldwide.

These changes are frequently not the result of internal pressure for change; rather, American groups are demanding change, and the Israeli government is responding to that pressure. And Orthodox American Jews, those who would protect tradition and oppose deviations from eternal Jewish values, are largely absent from the dialogue.

Proposed legislation will permit public transportation, and allow malls, movie theaters, and restaurants to open on the Shabbos. Another change (which recently passed through Knesset committees and the Cabinet, and does not require a full Knesset vote) removes the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions to Judaism, … Read More >>

Statement from Agudath Israel of America on this morning’s massacre of mispallelim in Har Nof

This morning’s barbaric murder in Har Nof, Jerusalem of four Jews has left all caring people reeling – the tears are pouring this morning and our hearts are full of pain.

This vicious attack on people wearing tallis and tefillin and immersed in tefilla is ugly testimony to the depth of evil faced by Jews in Israel and the world over, in the form of brutal terrorists who revel in the killing of innocents.

The celebration of the murders in Gaza and elsewhere reiterates the despicable nature of those who wish the Holy Land to be Judenrein.

When cold-blooded murderers attack a makom Torah u’tefila in the Eretz Ha’kodesh, it is incumbent upon all of us to strengthen ourselves in Torah and tefila on behalf of our dear brethren in the Eretz Ha’kodesh. Imahem anachnu b’tzara.

We are mispallel that those who were injured in this brutal attack have a refuah shlaimah.

Our hearts go out to the families, particularly the almanos and the 26 innocent yesomim who lost their fathers – true kedoshim, holy men killed because they were Jews, who died with Jewish prayers on their lips.

May the families of the murdered, … Read More >>

Status (Quo) Update

ITEM: In the wake of the shooting in Jerusalem of political activist Yehuda Glick, allegedly by an Islamic Jihad member who was killed by police after he fired at them, and the subsequent closing of the mosque on Har HaBayis to Muslim worshippers for several hours, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to maintain the “status quo” at the site.

ITEM: Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Israel is indeed “determined to maintain the status quo” at the holy site.

Status Quo: A Latin phrase meaning the existing state of affairs. The related phrase often intended by “status quo” is status quo ante, or, “the state of affairs that existed previously.”

It is unfortunate, in fact tragic, that a mosque occupies the site where the Beis Hamikdash stood and will one day stand again. But the state of Israel respects the understandable 1967 decision of then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol after the Six Day War, when Yerushalayim was reunited, to cede control of access to Har HaBayis to Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf, or religious trust. Even to the point of prohibiting Jewish prayer on the site, in seeming violation of at least the spirit … Read More >>

Sefer Torah Abuse

We rend our garments if a sefer Torah is, chalilah, desecrated. If one should fall to the ground, it is customary for those present to undertake to fast that day. I don’t know what the proper reaction is to seeing a sefer Torah employed as a prop in the service of a social cause, but a recent such exploitation made my heart hurt.

The exploiters, for their part, were jubilant. Members of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” they had obtained a sefer Torah small enough to smuggle into the Kosel Maaravi plaza, where they proceeded to hold a “bat-mitzvah” ceremony, complete with a woman reading from the Torah and the 12-year-old reciting birchas haTorah.

“Today we made history for women @ Kotel,” the group announced on social media. “We must recreate this victory each month with great opposition.”

The latter phrase may have been incoherent, but the sentiment was clear. By flouting the Jewish mesorah (and current Kosel regulations) and by evading the Israeli police, the intrepid women had, at least in their own minds, scored points for their team.

For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place – perhaps the only … Read More >>

Moral Climate Change

My pre-Sukkos column about the furious, quasi-religious zeal of some environmental alarmists apparently generated some… well, furious, quasi-religious zeal.

In an editorial, the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s managing editor mocked my contention that the Creator is ultimately in charge of the universe He created; and the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News invoked the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins to berate me for my skepticism about scientific predictions. (What’s with Jersey? Has climate change done a number on its journalists’ equanimity?)

In my column, just to recall, I described my unease with the rage I heard at a large climate change rally, noted that the climate has changed in the past and, yes, contended that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, and our own charge is, above all, to heed His Torah.

I did not, though, call into question the reality of climate change, or in any way disparage measures aimed at trying to curb it. I readily stated that “we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less.” But my sin, alas, was too great to bear.

In addition to the two papers’ public proclamations of my heresy, several Jewish individuals wrote me privately. … Read More >>

“Personal Torah”

A recent announcement by a respected Conservative rabbi has been trumpeted widely as evidence of his heroism. My take is somewhat different, and was published, to the periodical’s credit, by the Forward. You can read it here

The “Shabbos App” is a Farce

It is true that the “Shabbos App” has attracted a great deal of attention and discussion. Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on … what, precisely, I’m not sure. Probably that we care about Shabbos at all, and are distressed by those teens in many communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Halacha. But we’ll get to that eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that this whole thing is a farce, and of course we have yet to see anyone pony up $49.95 to get their (non-working) copy and prove me right or wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Rabbosai, you’ve all been fooled.

Let’s look at the evidence, which falls into four basic categories: the announcement, the website, the video, and the backers.

The Announcement They claim they’ll release it in February. If it takes that long to build this (which it shouldn’t), there’s no need to start marketing it so far in advance. The promised final version will cost $49.95, which is extraordinarily high for an app, much … Read More >>

Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist. In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like … Read More >>

Enemies, Real and Imagined

1) Hamas is evil.

2) Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

3) Anti-Israel sentiment is usually simple Jew-hatred in (not very good) disguise.

4) The United States needs to be fully supportive of Israel.

5) It has been.

Some would take issue with that last sentence. They are wrong. And it behooves Klal Yisroel, which is meant to be imbued with the concept of hakaras hatov, to recognize that fact.

Over the past six years, some have come to imagine that the current occupant of the White House is some sort of adversary of Israel.

Anyone, of course, can disagree with President Obama on any or all issues, even, perhaps, to just dislike him for no good reason, as some apparently do. But for those of us who (even though we expected the worst, considering some of the baggage he brought to Pennsylvania Avenue) have carefully observed him, he has proven himself more than worthy of Jewish respect.

Yet he was pounced upon, after his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world for, well, the simple decision to address that world; and for basing the state of Israel’s legitimacy on the Holocaust. What seemed to be … Read More >>

Ugly Times

It could well be, as some have charged, that the New York Times’ choice of photographs to accompany its reportage from Israel and Gaza has been skewed to emphasize Hamas’ grievances; or it could be that the imbalance of photos is merely a manifestation of the old journalistic adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Despite my general satisfaction with the paper’s actual reportage on the conflict, I lean to the former judgment. And I have similar misgivings about headlines that are created for dispatches. It’s not widely known that media have “headline writers” over whom reporters have no control. There have been several examples of headlines that didn’t truly reflect the articles beneath them, and in ways that led readers (of the headlines alone, at least – and that’s a lot of readers) to regard Israel negatively.

A recent Times report began with the following sentences: “Militant rockets can be seen launching from crowded neighborhoods, near apartment buildings, schools and hotels. Hamas fighters have set traps for Israeli soldiers in civilian homes and stored weapons in mosques and schools. Tunnels have been dug beneath private property.” Its headline? “Israel Says That Hamas Uses Civilian Shields, Reviving Debate,” as if … Read More >>

Fresh Air Amid The Reek

Even more remarkable than the article itself was where it appeared.

Written by Elissa Strauss, an essayist and a “co-artistic director” of a “non-religious Jewish house of study for culture-makers at the 14th Street Y” in New York, the piece – “What Did the Orthodox Do Now?!” – graced the pages of the Forward, where Ms. Strauss is a contributing editor.

The essay’s focus was the non-Orthodox Jewish media’s “fixation with Haredi Jews”; those organs’ “hunger for sensationalism” in their reportage on the Orthodox community; the “crude laziness” evidenced by such tunnel vision; and the reduction of “a whole community of Jews” to “a kind of caricature in stories that often traffic in stereotypes.”

Points well taken, and the Forward, of course, is a good example of such invidious ink-spilling. It has some excellent reporters but also maintains a stable of writers and bloggers with chronically jaundiced views of the charedi world. And so it deserves credit for publishing Ms. Strauss’ piece, which was essentially a rebuke of its own journalistic bent with regard to our community.

Ms. Strauss attributes the obsessive negativity displayed by some non-Orthodox writers for charedim to a desire to feel a “moral superiority” … Read More >>

When Waging War is Pursuing Peace

As Pinchas taught us, sometimes an act of violence promotes peace.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, we are told that one of the leaders of the Tribes of Israel engaged in an immoral act, deliberately violating the Commandments. He did it brazenly, “in your face,” challenging Moshe and all of the Children of Israel. Everyone was crying, but Pinchas knew what he had to do: pick up a spear. And how did G-d respond? Per this week’s reading, He bestowed upon Pinchas His Covenant of Peace.

We have no prophets today, but neither are any necessary to understand that there is no evil in killing barbarians bent upon killing you.

To those offended by my use of the term barbarians, I offer no apology. These are not civilized human beings with the same values as you and me. People who target women and children, hospitals and kindergartens, are barbarians. People who loudly proclaim that they “celebrate death,” are barbarians. People who bring their own children into buildings after a phone call from the IDF warning them that the building is about to be destroyed, are barbarians.

It is clear that Israel is making a … Read More >>

Agudath Israel Statement on Today’s Tragic News from Israel

Agudath Israel of America joins Jews and civilized people the world over in anguish and agony over the news of the vicious murders of the three boys kidnapped on June 12, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, Hy”d.

This horrific act is, in the end, not a crime against Israel or Jews alone, but against humanity – in both senses of the word. It bespeaks the deepest and most revolting inhumanity imaginable, the seizing of innocent, idealistic young people and the casual snuffing out of their lives and futures.

Hamas and its allies, which now include the Palestinian Authority, are ultimately responsible for these premeditated, heinous murders. The hatred and incitement that have characterized so much of the campaign to establish a new Arab state alongside Israel are what have yielded these young lifeless bodies, and all the death and destruction born of Arab terrorism over the years.

There are those who believe that all people are, deep down, good. Hamas and its friends, along with other terrorist groups and rogue nations like Iran, give the lie to that lovely but naïve fantasy.

It is our hope that the nations of the free world and their leaders … Read More >>

Driving Lesson

The article below appeared earlier this week in Haaretz (under a more incendiary title).

Back in the day, before contoured bucket seats became de rigueur in cars, the front seat of family vehicles – especially larger ones – was once a couch-like affair that could, and often did, comfortably seat three adults across. The scene: Mr. and Mrs. Weisskopf, citizens of a certain age, are driving somewhere. The missus is upset, and her husband asks what’s wrong.

“Do you remember,” she says, wistfully but with unmistakable resentment, “how we used to sit so near one another on our drives? Look at us! We’re at totally opposite ends of the seat!”

The man is puzzled, as well he might be. “But dear,” he replies, looking across at her, his hands firm on the steering wheel, “I’m driving!”

The chestnut comes to mind upon reading some of the reactions of Reform leaders to the election of Ruby Rivlin to Israel’s presidency.

“He may be open-minded on a variety of issues,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who now heads the “religious pluralism” organization Hiddush, pronounced about the president-elect, “but his mind was made up” about Judaism’s definition. He is “the same … Read More >>

From The Mouths of Secularists

“…To this very day, if you ask for my religion, I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one. If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to. That’s the one I failed. It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

Those are the words of the famous physicist and Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), quoted in the book “Rabi, Scientist and Citizen.” He was born into an observant family in Galicia, and was still a baby when his parents immigrated to the United States.

Although he eventually lost his connection to Jewish observance, he confided toward the end of his life that “Sometimes I feel I shouldn’t have dropped it so completely”; and, as his earlier words above testify, he rejected the idea that Judaism could ever be anything other than what it always has been, or that he – or any Jew – could ever be anything other than an Orthodox Jew – whether or not he chose to live like one.

A similar sentiment was voiced several years ago by then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, the man elected last week to be … Read More >>

How Prayer Can #BringBackOurBoys

Two recent articles have sought to demean the concept of tefilla at times of crisis like the present one. A response to the critics that I wrote for the Forward can be read here.

A Prediction Fulfilled — Sadly

Exactly one year ago, in a piece entitled “Yair Lapid Sets Back the Clock,” I predicted that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party would reverse a decade-long trend toward greater chareidi integration in the broader Israeli society. The Marker recently confirmed the accuracy of that prediction with respect to the number of chareidim seeking higher education and enlisting in the IDF.

An unidentified official in the Council on Higher Education termed the registration for the start of the upcoming academic year among chareidim as a “catastrophe.” According to the best estimates of the head of the council, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, there will be a 20 percent decline from the chareidi registration for the 2013-14 academic year. The decline has been particularly dramatic among male students

The decrease in the number of chareidim registering for academic programs comes at a time when government support — in the form of student loans and grants — for chareidim in academia has greatly expanded. Avraham Feldstein, the director of Kemach, which offers tuition stipends for chareidi students, notes “the absurdity that at the very time the government is investing significant funds to encourage chareidi higher education, it has created a public atmosphere … Read More >>

Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Did a Frothing Press Help Serve the Truth?

According to those in the know, Mayor Bill de Blasio was to have delivered his greetings and departed with his press entourage before the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, rose to address the assembled at Agudath Israel’s 92nd annual dinner. Instead, the mayor was running late, Rav Perlow’s speech was moved up, and both hizzoner and his press ended up with front row seats. And in a departure from his norm at the annual dinner, the Novominsker chose to address an urgent Inyana D’Yuma instead of delivering more general remarks.

To judge from the coverage that resulted, one could be forgiven for thinking that Rav Perlow had ascended the podium and called for open warfare.

The press reached into its bag of stereotypes and pulled out a familiar caricature of “angry” charedim, though the antipodal video is available for all to see. The Forward said that Rav Perlow’s “fiery” speech “stunned” the dinner, and quoted an anonymous “Jewish leader” as claiming the comments of the Rosh Agudath Israel were “divisive,” along with other adjectives which would besmirch the Rebbe’s kavod to even repeat. [What sort of “leader” … Read More >>

An Evil Report

My D’var Torah this week made a rare crossover into current events, in a way that I thought appropriate for Cross-Currents.

In this week’s reading we learn about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an. As is clear from the consequences, their evil report, and the Children of Israel’s reaction, became their greatest sin in all their time in the Sinai desert — and it was initiated by “leaders of the Children of Israel” [Num. 13:3]. Even among the Generation of the Desert, those who heard the Voice of G-d at Mt. Sinai, those who set this in motion were on an exalted spiritual level. How could this have happened?

After they went through the land of Cana’an, these great men came home very discouraged. They knew that the Children of Israel had sinned previously, especially with the Golden Calf. They saw that the inhabitants were giants, and it would take open miracles for Israel to be victorious. So they concluded, erroneously, that Israel was no longer worthy of that level of protection — that G-d’s promise was not unconditional, that they would lose.

So what did they do when they returned? Did they go to … Read More >>

Dangerous and Defective Products

It isn’t every year that news reports about Agudath Israel of America’s annual dinner make the pages of media like the Forward or The New York Times. This, however, was one such year.

The reason for the attention was the heartfelt and stirring speech delivered by the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a, the Rosh Agudas Yisroel, at the gathering. And the fact that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio chose not to contest the Rebbe’s words.

Really.

Rav Perlow spoke to the issue of organized deviations from the Jewish mesorah, a topic that is timely because of the insistence of the latest such movement on calling itself “Open Orthodoxy,” rather than summoning the courage to find an independent adjective for itself, as did the Conservative and Reform movements of the past.

Over the past century or two, the term “Orthodox” in the Jewish world has been synonymous with full affirmation of the mesorah – including most prominently the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim; the fact that the Torah, both Written and Oral, was bequeathed to our ancestors at Har Sinai; and that Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov actually existed – concepts that prominent products or leaders of the “Open Orthodoxy” movement are … Read More >>

Retroactive Prophecy Redux

As I expected, my critique of some recent writing of Rabbi Berel Wein has generated many comments and communications, yeas and nays.

A follow-up explanation can be read here.

Leading the Blind

The results of recent Jewish community surveys are alternately delightful and dismal, exciting and excruciating. The growth of Torah-observant households is a stunning phenomenon, while Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen observed, “the sky is falling for the rest of the population.”

Given this dichotomy and the urgency of the problem, we might imagine that everyone would want to know what it is that we, the Orthodox, are doing right. But apparently we would be wrong. Despite multiple surveys detailing the divergent trajectories of young traditional versus liberal Jews today, we have seen no studies dedicated to understanding our successful formula. Instead, Federations and well-meaning philanthropic foundations continue to invest great sums of money on projects whose claim to promote Jewish continuity is nothing more than conjecture — with predictable results.

As we all know, the Torah community is thriving. In less than a decade, the number of Orthodox Jews grew by over 100,000 in the New York area alone, according to the UJA/Federation survey — over 20%. In Baltimore, a similar survey showed an increase of 50%. Last year’s Pew Survey reported more modest growth nationally, but noted that while 11% of adults 18-29 are Orthodox, the … Read More >>